When Donegal na Valenfaer returned to the tavern with the skittish Red Tiger, he found only Captain Fynystere, more than half-drunk and half- asleep, at the corner table. Ignoring the astonished stares and frightened murmurs of the patrons, Donegal turned and searched the common room quickly. That so-called bard, thank Sanar, was gone.
Heaving a grateful sigh, the leech slid into the corner beside the captain, and the Red Tiger settled peacefully at his feet. A pretty wench smiled at Donegal and motioned to an ale mug. Donegal nodded and began to feel much better.
“Hey, Captain,” he jostled Fynystere, “having fun, sir?”
Fynystere groaned, lifted his dangling head, and gazed blearily at his leech. “Oh, Donegal,” the captain slurred, “you’re back. You missed dinner. Matteo sings like an angel.”
“The Magnus bard. Richard really liked him,” Fynystere continued, sliding forward to rest his head on his hands. “He took him back to the ship.”
Donegal practically flew out of the chair and ran for the door. Kitty, the Red Tiger, sped at his heels.
Richard took that bard back to the ship?!
“He’s an assassin,” Donegal had told Richard when they stood outside the tavern two hours ago. “All the Masked God’s priests are assassins, torturers, executioners, something. And he’s important, Rich.”
“What the hell is a Beinison priest doing here?” Richard had wondered, his face pale and his breath short.
“Going to kill someone, I suppose,” Donegal had shrugged. The leech hadn’t really cared; all Donegal wanted to do was get away from that “bard” as soon as possible.
Donegal had been surprised at the question. “How the hell should I know?”
More surprising than the demand were the sudden, violent hands on Donegal’s shoulders. Richard shook him once. “Think, damn you,” the bowmaster hissed, murder in his voice. “Who could he be here to get? You said he’s important. What did you mean?”
Donegal struggled beneath Richard’s large, hard hands. “Gold’s the highest rank in their priesthood. That executioner’s hood is their symbol, and it was gold.”
Richard was silent a moment, but his strong fingers dug into Donegal’s flesh. “So he wouldn’t be here to kill just anybody?”
“I guess not, but Rich–”
“My God,” Richard abruptly breathed. “Oh, my God.”
Donegal had never seen the bowmaster so frightened, and they had faced death–and worse–together so many times that– But Richard’s blue eyes held terror, and his face was corpse-grey. Donegal couldn’t swear to it, but he thought the strong archer was shaking. “What is it, Rich?”
Richard didn’t answer. Face stony, Richard turned slowly in the darkness and began to move away as if sleepwalking. “Don’t worry, Donegal. We won’t let him take you.”
“Bowmaster?” Donegal shrank into the darkness as soon as he heard the voice; he did not want that disguised priest to see him. Richard turned to the so-called bard. “Where is your friend? I’ve never seen his like, except among the Beinison slaves.”
The final word had sent Donegal fleeing into the night, and Donegal had not seen Richard since then. But he must have returned to the tavern; Captain Fynystere had said that Richard had taken the “bard” back to the Eclipse–
Donegal groaned internally and quickened his already-sprinting pace. Sanar guard him, Donegal prayed. Alanna, guard him on your ship.
The Red Tiger rushed ahead impatiently, and Donegal increased his speed with great effort. What am I doing? he wondered at himself. That priest could haul me back to Beinison–
And hurl Richard into the grave.
The Red Tiger leapt easily onto the gang plank, turned expectantly, and waited for Donegal. “Go!” he breathed, panting slightly. “Find him.” The Red Tiger seemed to nod before she sped away. Donegal tried to breathe deeply enough to shout, “Watch!”
The word came out less impressively than Donegal wished, but Morise of Equiville, the boatswain, heard. “Ev’nin’, leech,” Morise greeted him casually. “Th’ law on yir back?”
“Richard!” Donegal huffed, trying to slow and calm his breathing and his pounding heart. “Where is Richard?”
“Th’ bowmaster’s b’low decks with a bard ir sech,” Morise supplied readily. “‘E sings richt purty–”
Donegal dashed for the stairs and fell down them noisily in his haste. “Rich!” Donegal rasped, throwing open the door to the officers’ shared cabin.
Empty, dark space stared back at him. Donegal grabbed the lintels for support.
“Whaire’s th’ fir’, Donegal?” Donegal sprang into the air at Morise’s words. “What’s wrong wi’ yir?”
Donegal closed his eyes tightly. Richard could be in that dark room, dead on the floor. How would he know? How could he know without lighting the lamp–and giving that false bard time to leap out at him? Donegal took a deep breath and tried to think. How could he know where that false bard and Richard were? “Where’s the bowmaster?” he panted again. “Morise–”
“Cap’n's cab’n, I think,” Morise obliged, staring at Donegal as if he were mad. “What’s in yir, boy?”
Donegal turned with all the energy he had left and stumbled down the hall to the captain’s quarters. Impatiently swinging her tail, the Red Tiger waited at the captain’s door. Donegal swallowed and attempted normal breathing. He failed miserably. “Has the bard left yet?”
Thank Sanar. Maybe there was time left to save Richard. Donegal staggered the last few feet and collapsed beside the Red Tiger, who continued to scratch the captain’s door impatiently.
The bard’s sudden, low laugh chilled Donegal’s blood, and he shivered. “Am I?” he said with a voice pleasantly evil.
“Do you think I don’t know the marks of the Masked God’s priests?” Richard challenged with even confidence, and Donegal released a momentous, grateful sigh. “I’m no stranger to Beinison. I’ve seen your like before.”
“Come, be logical,” the pseudo-bard soothed, and Donegal shook. “Why would a Beinison priest be here in Northfield–in an enemy country, for Stevene’s sake?”
Donegal reached for the doorknob as Richard emitted a careful laugh. “Do you think using the Stevene’s name will fool me? Or that it will distract me?” Richard returned, his voice suddenly filled with an inexplicable power which made Donegal shiver in responsive awe. “I know what you are, and I can guess why you’re here.”
Donegal turned the doorknob silently. Locked. Damn you, Richard! Didn’t the man have better sense?
“Why am I here?” the bard demanded, his voice sinking into the frigid tones of the Masked God’s priests. “Tell me, O bowmaster.”
“Where are the keys?” Donegal hissed to Morise, who drew closer. “We’ve got to unlock this door.”
“None but the cap’n has keys,” Morise whispered loudly. Angry at his noise, Donegal chopped the air to silence him. “We can’t get in.”
“There’s got to be another set,” Donegal argued. “Rich got in there somehow, and we’ve got to go in after him.”
“And what, pray, makes you think that?” the fake bard laughed coldly.
“You revealed it through your carelessness,” Richard answered, his voice still flowing with that new might. “It does not matter.”
The bard chuckled sinisterly. Before he could speak, Morise interrupted, “How’re yir gonna get in thaire?”
Donegal looked at Morise, and his mind raced. “Porthole. Isn’t there a porthole?”
“Ne’er go through it, Donegal,” Morise objected. “T’ small.”
Richard’s voice raised suddenly without losing its control. “You will not kill the–”
“Oooooh–” someone bellowed, and Donegal whirled to see the drunken captain sway into the hallway. Donegal motioned sharply for Fynystere’s silence, but the captain ignored him. “Ooooh,” he began again, then started to sing a drunken, bawdy ballad with deafening tunelessness.
“Then you will die!” the bard shrieked. Something crashed. Donegal heard Richard cry out. The Red Tiger roared in angry helplessness.
Donegal sprang to his feet and rushed at the captain. “Give me the keys!” Donegal screamed. “Give me the keys!”
The captain staggered without hurry, singing his ditty merrily. “Ooooh,” he started the refrain again.
Glass shattered. Something thudded against the wall. The bard snarled. Richard howled in pain, his power gone.
“Give me the keys!” Donegal shrieked, taking hold of Fynystere’s shoulders and shaking him. Fynystere fumbled in both pockets. The Red Tiger pawed the door anxiously. Something crashed again.
“Rich!” Donegal called desperately.
The bard laughed.
Another thud. Fynystere fished the iron key ring from somewhere. A heavy object slid across the floor in the room beyond. Donegal’s shaking hands searched the keys. Above decks, men were running and calling. The world thundered in Donegal’s ears. He shoved the key into the quivering lock and turned it.
The Red Tiger lunged into the room, distracting the knife-wielding, gory bard who spun and smiled through the blood like a dragon. The blade rose. Donegal charged into the false bard’s embrace and cried out as they both fell. Metal clattered on the floor. The Red Tiger leapt and roared at the bard who reached for the knife. The bard shouted a curse.
Suddenly, without willing it, Donegal rolled onto his back. The bard cried out, and blood spurted by Donegal’s eyes. Gleaming metal danced on the edge of Donegal’s eyesight. He reached–it was warm and slid in his hand– and when it hit home, Donegal’s wrist wrenched painfully.
The bard collapsed onto Donegal’s chest.
Magic hands appeared from nowhere to haul the bard off Donegal’s body. The surgeon rolled toward the Red Tiger, who stood protectively between the bard’s corpse and Richard’s bloody body. “Rich!” Donegal croaked.
The bowmaster was still.
Despairing, Donegal staggered to his feet but crashed when he slipped on the blood. Feebly, the leech crawled to his friend and tried to rip away the gory shirt. Even with it obscuring Richard’s chest, Donegal knew there were at least two wounds.
By magic, Donegal’s medical bag appeared on his lap, and voices buzzed around his head as he drew out his tools–
“–Did you see Kitty? She nearly bit his hand clean off!”
“–Wonder what the bowmaster was doing?”
“–Ain’t no bard can fight like that!”
One voice was Morise’s. “Stow th’ trash, and we’ll heave it t’morrir when we set sail. Can’t be lettin’ ‘m know we’s killed a bard.”
“Water!” Donegal demanded. He was barely conscious of the gentle, thin hands of Luen Half-Elven, the youngest of the crew, setting a small cauldron and a pile of clean bandages near him. Richard’s wounds were deep and dangerous, and Donegal could see nothing else.
Luen’s slender fingers sponged away the blood so Donegal could see, and the frantic surgeon groaned for his friend’s life. Blood gushed from wounds. He tried to thread the needle with a quaking hand.
Richard cried out when Luen touched him, and Donegal started, losing the needle completely. “My brother,” the bowmaster moaned, thrashing. “My brother.”
“Hold him down!” Donegal shouted, and several disembodied arms appeared to hold Richard still. Luen handed Donegal a threaded needle, and Donegal stitched. Richard screamed his pain, but was held still. Horror-struck and numb, Donegal stitched.
And then it was done. Richard lay still on the floor, breathing shallowly as his patched chest rose and fell. There was nothing Donegal could do but wait and pray and hope.
Trembling, Donegal fell against a wall and finally allowed himself to think. “Rich, you’re a stupid ass,” he choked. “Attack a Masked God’s priest.”
“Dead?” Richard gasped, and Donegal jumped. Sweat peppered the bowmaster’s forehead and streaked his bloody hair, but he turned to Donegal. “Dead?”
Donegal pulled himself to Richard’s side. “He’s dead,” the surgeon answered, cradling his friend’s head. Unexpectedly, tears spilled from Richard’s blue eyes as they closed, relieved. “What the hell did you think you were doing?”
“My brother,” the bowmaster murmured, relaxing beneath Donegal’s hands. Richard’s eyes opened again. “His necklace…the King’s head…his necklace…”
“What’s he talking about?” Luen asked, sliding toward them.
Donegal wasn’t too certain himself. “Go tell Morise I want the necklace that…bard was wearing. Now,” Donegal snapped when the boy didn’t move. As Luen left, Donegal looked back at Richard. “You’re a god-damned fool, Rich.”
Richard shook his head weakly. “My brother…”
“And you may die for it,” Donegal finished, his voice rising. Balancing Richard’s head on his leg, the leech scrambled for bandages and began to wrap the wounds. “I told you he was an assassin. Why–”
“My brother,” Richard croaked. “He said…something he said…he was going to kill my brother.”
Donegal laughed nervously and tucked the bandage to keep it fastened securely. “Your brother? You’ve got to be kidding. That priest was of the highest rank–” Donegal laughed again, frightened by the unthinkable, and asked thoughtlessly, “Is your brother so important?”
Richard closed his eyes and nodded weakly. “Essential.”
Donegal shuddered. Who was Richard’s brother, that a High Priest of the Masked God was sent to deal with him?
Good Sanar, who was Richard then?
“Promise me.” Startled out of his fright, Donegal looked down into Richard’s pained blue eyes. “Promise me.”
“Anything, Rich,” Donegal vowed, watching blood seep through the bandages despite the fine stitching.
“If I die–”
“You won’t die,” Donegal asserted stubbornly, suddenly unwilling to face the fact.
Before Richard could answer, Luen rushed in again, panting, and gave Donegal the necklace with the three pendants, which the surgeon gave immediately to Richard. “Go get me the healing potions,” Donegal ordered sternly, “quick!” If Donegal could get enough healing potions into him–special healing that the old leech his master had taught him–he could avoid a fever, increase the healing, and give Richard a better chance at life.
“And a sleeping potion?” Luen wondered, pausing at the door.
Donegal nodded. Richard might need one, in his pain. But when Donegal looked down at his old friend, Richard was already asleep, the coin on the “bard”‘s necklace clutched to his heart.
In the hallway, Fynystere snored.